For under $40 off the volcanic island of Madeira, you can enjoy three hours cruising on a replica of Christopher Columbus’s galleon “Santa Maria.”
Before he crossed the Atlantic on his legendary voyage back in 1492, Columbus lived for a few years in the Madeira archipelago, which had been discovered earlier that century by Portuguese sailors.
Cruising over the waves, it is easy to imagine yourself in a bygone, swashbuckling, risk-taking era, especially considering how small the Santa María was: A single deck craft about 58 feet long with three small masts.
The modern motor used for the replica on days with less wind brings you back to a more mundane present, but there is no denying the fabulous history of Madeira and its eponymous wine.
During a master class last month from the Madeira Wine, Embroidery and Handicraft Institute, I learned that the signatories of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 toasted the occasion with a glass of Madeira. George Washington apparently advised his illustrious colleagues to drink a pint of Madeira daily.
Sailors to the Americas and the East Indies regularly stopped at Madeira for fresh water and supplies between the 15th and early 19th centuries. They brought on board wine barrels to provide needed sustenance for sailors, and to act as ballast. Of course no refrigeration existed back then, but both consumers and producers learned how the wine improved in quality as it trekked across hot tropical zones.
These days, the Estufagem aging process produces Madeira’s distinctive flavor. It is supposed to duplicate the effect of long sea voyages through tropical climates. Three main methods are used to “heat age” the wine, used according to quality and cost. High-end wines undergo the Canteiro process, by which wines are aged without the use of any artificial heat, stored by wineries in warm rooms left to age by the heat of the sun for as long as 100 years or more.
Madeira also became fortified. To prevent the wine from spoiling on the long maritime journeys, producers added brandy, a practice that took hold in the mid-18th century. The process continues today and all wines have in between 17.5% and 21% alcohol strength.
Fortified certainly, but Madeira wines offer a wide range of dry to sweet styles depending largely on the grape chosen.
Few Wines, High Prices
But only about 440 hectares of small terraces are planted with vineyards on Madeira, which explains why premium wines can be so expensive. Indeed, the 19th century plagues of oidium and phylloxera devastated many vineyards, and vintners only slowly recovered.
During my visit last month, which was organized so well by Luiz Alberto and Ana Sofia de Oiveira of the online #winelover community, I bought a superb 1995 vintage Boal by producer Barbeito for €140 ($158). The same wine cost nearly double at the Funchal Airport. Only 670 bottles were produced.
Indeed, production is small. Only 20 per cent of Madeira is covered by the major white premium grape varieties of Sercial, Verdelho, Boal (or Bual) and Malvasia, which give their names to the four major styles of wine, each becoming progressively sweeter in style, from Extra Dry (Sercial) to Medium Sweet (Malvasia).
Two other grape varieties, Terrantez and Bastardo, are rarer and usually only seen in voluminous and comprehensive Madeira collections, such as those offered by auction houses like Christie’s.
On Madeira, I tasted a superb 1978 Medium Dry Terrantez that exuded such elegance, with spice, molasses, pot-pourri, and orange peel aspects. The institute could not tell us the name of the producer, as it was strictly a blind tasting, but I had a similar experience with a Blandy’s 1977 Medium Dry Terrantez, at the winery. Both bottles were quoted as costing at least €250 ($282).
In addition to grape choices, of course viticulture and winemaking methods make a difference.
Take for example the 2007 Single Harvest Medium Dry Tinta Negra from the Barbeito producer. The cost is more reasonable at about €30 but you enjoy a wine that is both crisp and focused. The most common on Madeira, the Tinta Negra grape is considered to be a mere workhorse variety, found in various concentrations in many blends and vintage wines, and it tends to have lower natural acidity.
But Barbeito owner Ricardo Freitas succeeded in lending a more vivacious expression to the grape, by picking over half of his harvest eight days early to maintain higher acidity. The wine’s typical and pleasing toffee notes came across more refined than expected as a result. Freitas likes more acidity in his Madeira in general, which explains why his aging rooms are generally cooler than average.
Any visitor to the island should arrange visits to producers. One of the most impressive is Blandy's, which includes an excellent museum to explain the history of the wine.
And speaking of history, while one can purchase fine Madeira that won’t break the bank, the big thrill for wine lovers is to savor old Madeira.
On the #winelover tour last month, 25 of us each chipped in about $45 per person to share a single bottle of Blandy's Verdelho Solera 1870. Although the amount of wine I drank seemed to be not much more than a glorified drop, the thrill of tasting a wine so vibrant for its age, at once supple and vivacious, was worth the price of admission.
Master Class in Washington, D.C.
Indeed, tasting such treasures is the closest one could come to going back to the 1880s and boarding an old sailing ship, which brings me to a master class organized last year by historical wine aficionado Aaron Nix-Gomez. His session in Washington, D.C. featured old Madeira, with most bottles sourced from the Rare Wine Company.
One highlight was the 1928 D’Oliveira, Sercial. Pereira D’Oliveira was founded in 1850 as a producer of wines. It was not until the mid-1970s when it began to market wines under its own name. This particular wine was acquired in barrel when D’Oliveira purchased the Adegas do Terreão collection in 2002. D’Oliveira keeps their wines in barrel until they are bottled for sale. This wine had been bottled only in 2017 and exuded fine acidity and freshness. At $500 per bottle, it proved a rare treat indeed to savor refined nougat and toffee flavors in a luscious and deep palate, with both roundness and complexity.
Although just 10 years younger than the 1870 I had tried on the island, the 1880 Companhia Vinicola da Madeira (CVM) Malvasia was just as delicious, with a layered and rich palate, so dense and opulent for a wine so old. The company was closed in 1984 and much of the stock sold off. This bottle bears a paper Junta Nacional do Vinho seal underneath the wicker capsule. The JNV seal would have been applied between 1937 and 1979. It costs about $1,000 per bottle.
Another highlight of the Washington D.C. tasting went back further in time with the 1845 Cossart Gordon Bual Solera Madeira. The 1845 Bual became a Solera in 1875, in response to the shortage of wine following the Phylloxera epidemic. There were many bottlings of this Solera both in Madeira and in England. This bottling is by Evans Marshall & Co. who became Cossart’s agents in London in 1956. Despite some noticeable oxidized notes, the wine -- at $800 per bottle -- proved intriguingly lively with impressive aromatic complexity and length for its age.
We went “back to the future” with a superb Barbeito Malvasia Faja dos Padres. Aged in 800 liter casks using the Canteiro method and bottled in 2012, this $225 bottle conveyed pleasing nougat flavors, in a very balanced expression of richness, persistence and density. Malvasia encompasses several different grapes with Malvasia Candida perhaps the most prized. It is a difficult grape to grow and prefers particular locations. And one of these locations is Faja dos Padres that was originally cultivated by the Jesuits. Located on the south side of the island, it lies at the bottom of a 900-foot cliff, which, until recently, was only accessible by boat.
During my tour to Madeira, I lunched at the Faja dos Padres restaurant, which is now accessible by cable car: Another “must” should you ever visit Madeira. Beyond wine, a visit to Madeira would not be complete without strolling through the 80,000 square meter Madeira Botanical Garden. The sheer variety of plants, flowers and cactuses is matched by amazing, sun drenched ocean views overlooking Funchal. And be sure to savor the many different types of naturally tangy yet sweet passion fruits that can be purchased at local markets.
But in terms of “wine bucket lists?” My advice, if you have not done so already, is to gather a like-minded group of wine geeks and source older Madeira. Share the cost and savor the wines over a long weekend lunch: A time travel wine trip well worth taking.